By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Morning light peeks over the horizon on a Sunday in August. Inside an Anaheim warehouse, four siblings stand in silence. The Brito kids—Orange County natives who spent much of their childhood fending for themselves—are waiting for a group of strangers to take them on a road trip to Mexico.
A few minutes later, Tarcisio Magaña, owner of a local automobile-repair shop and a member of Los Amigos of Orange County, maneuvers a boxy white van through the southbound lanes of Interstate 5. Amin David, the longtime leader of Los Amigos, fires questions at the kids. "Are you excited or nervous?" he asks. "What's the first thing you're going to tell her?"
Diana, 20, giggles at the questions and shrugs her shoulders. Araceli, 18, and Eduardo, 16, respond in unison: "I have no idea." Isela, 17, smiles but continues to gaze at passing cars. The sun is starting to rise, and the freeway lights mix with the dawn, casting a soft, promising glow on the landscape ahead. Magaña pulls his eyes from the road for second and looks at the kids via the rear-view mirror. "This is going to be one of those moments that makes you say, 'This is life,' you know?" he says in Spanish.
A hundred miles and a breakfast-burrito stop later, Magaña slows the van to stop. In the distance, shacks line the border wall; to the right of the road a sign reads, "WARNING: Guns/ammo illegal in Mexico Frontera Internaciónal 2 km." Tijuana is just a few minutes away. After getting waved through the U.S.-Mexico border by the federales, Magaña gets to a toll-road pay station, rolls down the window and hands a couple of dollars to the woman running it.
"Where should we stop?" David asks rhetorically. "We're going to stop at the McDonald's there in Rosarito, okay?"
Isela nods and nudges Araceli. "Okay, text Mom," Isela tells her sister. "Tell her we're almost here."
About an hour later, the van enters a parking lot; the kids hurry into the pristine, brightly lit McDonald's. Their mom isn't there yet, so the Britos sit around a square, plastic table and wait. Diana tosses a bracelet back and forth between her hands as Araceli crosses her arms over her chest and cranes her neck to look out the window. European dance beats pulse in the background.
Suddenly, someone says, "I think that's her." The Britos swoop their heads in unison toward the door as a small woman with a neatly kept bun and deep wrinkles around her dark-brown eyes walks through the door and runs to the table. Her four kids jump up, and all at once, they hug their mami. Kisses, tears and "I love you"s drown out the music as Ana Maria Sanchez Mateo, 45, nuzzles the head of each of her kids, whom she hasn't seen in months.
* * *
On Dec. 8, 2008, a teacher told Araceli to report to her Reno high school's front office. "I didn't know what was going on," she says now, as she sits on a couch at the Britos' apartment in Anaheim. "They say, 'Okay, calm down, don't worry, but your mom was deported.'"
The then-16-year-old left the office and aimlessly roamed the halls of her school. The Britos had moved to San Diego from Orange County, and then to Nevada for their dad's job seven years earlier. Ana Maria and her husband had since separated, with their dad moving to the Midwest. Finally, Araceli ran into Isela. The sisters locked eyes, and Araceli blurted out, "Mom was deported."
They knew their mom, who had lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years, had an interview with immigration officials earlier in the day, but they expected her to come home with a green card. They'd later find out that because of her past immigration record, Ana Maria wasn't eligible for one. A victim of domestic violence, she had been living and working legally in the U.S. for several years; under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994, the government granted her work authorization. Once she was eligible for, but not guaranteed, a green card, the government stopped granting her work authorization.
Araceli and Isela found Diana, told her what had happened, and together, they planned their next step. First, they had to track down Eduardo, who went to a different school, and convince administrators to let them leave. "They're like, 'You don't have a mom; you don't have a dad. Where are you gonna go?'" Isela recalls.
One of the girls called their father, who lived in Chicago at the time; he called a friend and asked him to pick up the kids. They'd never met the man, but they wanted the ride home.
The man picked up the girls, then Eduardo, and dropped them off at their house. Upon arriving at the front door, the kids realized they didn't have any keys. On a hunch, Eduardo jumped onto the porch and tried to open the door. It was unlocked. He let his sisters in. Waiting for them were several messages from their mami, sobbing that she was about to get deported.